The season of Advent is a time when we are particularly attentive to images of Christ gleaned from the prophetic texts of the Old Testament, in addition to those that emerged from Jesus’ earthly ministry in Palestine. As poet, priest and musician Malcolm Guite notes, “In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah:” O Wisdom! O Lord! O Root! O Key! O Dayspring! O King! O Emmanuel! Indeed, Guite has given his own series of sonnets to accompany this sequence of antiphons still being used in the liturgical traditions, a litany of images that provide another way to extol Christ’s virtues and identity as Savior week by week as we wait and remember His coming in Bethlehem. This week we offer one of those poems, “O Radix,” as a meditation on Christ via an image from His creation.
The texts from which the “root” image for Jesus derives are both from Isaiah 11, and the root image actually encompasses the full flourishing of the plant, from its origins in the ground, through renewal of a seemingly-dead stump, and towards the fruitfulness of the restored vine. The most direct line naming Jesus as the root is in verse 10: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” It is this promise of the Messiah’s advent being for the rule and benefit of the gentiles that Paul picks up in chapter 15 of his letter to the Romans, as well. In both cases, though, the conflation of the “branch,” or “rod,” or “shoot,” mentioned earlier in Isaiah 11:1, with the “root” from which it springs suggests the way Jesus, though coming at a specific time in history, was at history’s beginnings and will be at its end: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. ”
But thinking about roots more specifically and “naturally” is worthwhile, too, as being attuned to functions as well as forms helps us reflect on the several ways in which Christ enables us to be connected to Him and each other. Spend time walking along a river, for instance, looking carefully at the trees that grow along its banks and you will discover that their roots have two principal functions: to take in nourishment from the water and to anchor the tree securely in place; on one hand, to seek out something that is supremely mysterious, mobile, and literally fluid, and, on the other hand, to take hold of something solid, secure and immovable. Indeed, they are complementary roles, for a tree fully exposed to the power of moving water is as likely to be washed away as to flourish—it must have a stronghold to stand in the presence of the flood. Likewise, to “take root” in the Scriptures and in the Lord Himself is thus to be always reaching out, yearning for more of His Spirit, even as we stay firmly planted in the strength and security of His steadfast embrace.
For Guite, the fact that the Radix image refers to the ‘tree of Jesse, the family tree which leads to David, and ultimately to Christ as the ‘son of David,” is important, but, he says, “the title radix, goes deeper, as a good root should. It goes deep down into the ground of our being, the good soil of creation.” In other words, it gets at both the truth of Jesus’ identity as the source of our life and salvation (He is the root, the stem, the fruit), but also as the author of the world to which we (and the Scriptures, themselves) turn to find ways of talking about and imagining our own connection, our own grafting-in to that vine. It subtly suggests that recognizing ourselves as contiguous with the world—though set apart from it by God’s grace and fellowship—begins our process of being re-connected to the King and His kingdom. Conversely, when we turn our backs on the knowledge He speaks forth through His creation, or shrink back from our call to know and cultivate the world as it is, we cut ourselves off from our roots, from each other, and even from the Lord. That we so often satisfy ourselves with the latter is one more reason to lament in this season of waiting, as we call to the coming Messiah, “Come, O Radix, come!”
by Malcom Guite
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.
Born in Nigeria and raised in Africa and Canada, Malcolm Guite is a poet and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge, UK, where he also works as a priest and academic, lecturing on the links between literature and theology. His poetry has appeared frequently in journals, and he has published two collections: Saying the Names (2002) and The Magic Apple Tree (2004). He is also the author of What Do Christians Believe? and Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. His essay on literature and incarnation is included in Beholding the Glory: Imagination Through the Arts. As a musician, Guite moves easily from rock ’n’ roll to traditional jazz to folk, including hybrids of all three. His CD, The Green Man, is out on Cambridge Riffs and iTunes. Guite’s own mediation on and reading of the poem, along with a recording of the accompanying antiphon, may be found here.